The Last Book

I’ve never read anything by David Rakoff but I guess I’ll have to start.

The trouble is, I suspect I’ll fall in love, and it’s going to be bitter sweet because as just about everybody knows, David died of cancer last year.

On the weekend The Globe and Mail published a story on David’s last book, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. The story was part eulogy and part biography and part review, and it made me want to go out and read everything Rakoff has written.

I always joke when people say to me, “I just read your last book.” I smile or laugh and say “do you know something I don’t?” Then they correct themselves, or I do it for them as some king of a grammatical service and say “my most recent book, you mean.”

But who knows?

That’s the trouble with writing; it’s never over until it’s over. It’s not like there’s an allotment of ideas for each writer and you use them up and then that’s it. It’s that way when I’m behind my camera too. I bet it’s that way for artists of all mediums.

Edward Abbey, one of my favourite non-fiction writers, always mused about writing The Fat Masterpiece and then retiring on the exorbitant royalties he would receive, smoke evil cigars and contemplate his own genius. But pretty much to the moment of his death he was writing, in his case the sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang called Hayduke Lives (which sort of spoils the first book’s suspense). Abbey admitted it wasn’t a very good book, and it wasn’t, and that he did it for the money; not for him – he knew he was dying when he wrote it – but for his family.

I wonder how that feels? As I read the Globe piece on David Kakoff’s final book, and then the NY Times essay on the same,  I wondered how it must have felt for someone so dedicated to literature to know, as he did, that the words he was writing would be his last.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I have a lot of ideas. The truth is I have a lot of ideas but really I’m just trying to find different ways of getting to the main point. The thought that any one book might be the last is deeply unsettling. I guess if that one book, the last one, is truly outstanding, and conveys what the writer hopes to impart his or her readers with, then they could retire or expire knowing they had left the world having done their best work.

But creativity doesn’t seem to work that way. It seems to me that the writer, the photographer, the artist, is always trying to find the perfect words, the perfect light, the perfect shape that expresses how she or he feels about this life, the world, and one another. So we write another book, shoot another sunset, sing another song, paint another canvas or throw another bowl on the wheel because maybe, with each renewed effort, we will create something beautiful or hilarious, touching or disconcerting that says “this is what I wanted to tell you about how I feel.”

And then we do it again.

Knowing that something – a book, a photograph, a play, a sculpture – is going to be the last one could be heartbreaking. It could be overwhelming. It could be a relief too, but a bitter sweet one at best.

I’ll pick up David Rakoff’s new book, and for me it won’t be his last.

Back to Batoche

Today is a momentous day for the Métis people of Canada, and for all Canadians. After 128 years the bell from the local church in the town of Batoche is coming home.

Stolen by soldiers from the Northwest Field Force on the final day of the battle that put Batoche on the map of Canadian history, the Bell ended up in the town of Millbrooke, Ontario, where it was housed in the local fire hall, until that building burned to the ground. Cracked in the fire, it was then put on display in the local Legion Hall. In 1991 the Legion was broken into and the bell ‘removed.’ It hasn’t been seen in public since.

The Union nationale métisse Saint-Joseph du Manitoba has now negotiated the bell’s return, promising anonymity with those who have held the bell for the last two decades.

Today (Saturday July 20) is the day of the Bell’s repatriation.

In May of this year I visited Batoche for a second time. I was on a book tour for the Third Riel Conspiracy, a mystery novel set during the four day battle that was the climax of the 1885 Northwest Resistance. I had an event scheduled for Saskatoon that night, but wanted to see once again the landscape the Métis fought to defend.

Like too many Canadians, I didn’t learn about Batoche while I was in school. I learned more about the American Civil War than I did the events that indelibly shaped my own country. The Durrant Wallace series of historically themed mysteries are as much an excuse for me to dive deeply into my countries own past as it is a chance to tell compelling tales of intrigue and adventure.

While walking over the golden fields along the Mission Ridge, watching the Saskatchewan River bend between high bluffs where Métis sharpshooters kept the much more substantial Field Force at bay for four days, I thought that this was one of those places that every Canadian should step foot. Reading about the events that lead up to the Resistance is fine – the destruction of the buffalo, the deplorable starvation of the Cree, Sioux and Métis, the stolen land, the effort to force the Métis to accept land away from the River, lifeblood of the prairie, and of course religion – but walking the same pathways that Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont did makes it real.

At the center of the battle was the church. On the first and final day of the conflict, the fighting engulfed that building. That building creates a focal point for any visit to Batoche, and it was from there that the Bell was stolen, the spoils of war.

As Canadians we still live in a nation divided. I’ve never condoned the tactics employed by Dumont and Riel in the spring of 1885, but I understand why a people, on the verge of starvation, their voices lost in the relentless crush of progress during that formative decade, would resort to any means necessary to get the attention of political Canada. Walking the trails at Batoche there is a feeling that Canada lost something important when both sides resorted to open warfare that spring.

Maybe, when the Bell rings out in Batoche once more, calling people not to pray but to consider our shared heritage and journey as a country, we can start to write a new chapter in our collective future together.

Two for the price of one

I finished writing the first draft of The Same River Twice yesterday morning. This will be the third book in the Red Rock Canyon series, featuring Silas Pearson and his journey to find his missing wife, Penelope de Silva.

I finished the first draft of Black Sun Descending in the middle of May. It’s the second book in the series that started with the publication of The Slickrock Paradox last year. The trilogy is set in the American Southwest, around Arches, Canyonlands and Grand Canyon National Parks, and the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monuments.

In total I wrote about 155,000 words in just over three months. As I’ve said before, first drafts are the literary equivalent of me vomiting words onto a page as if I’d been binge drinking all night. I write as fast as I can just to keep up with the kaleidoscope of images, characters, plot lines and the myriad voices in my head.

I’ve written seven other books in three different mystery series, as well as two books of non-fiction, and a couple of unpublished manuscripts, but I’ve never written two first drafts back-to-back. This was an experiment, and it seemed to work.

Credit for the idea goes to Ruth Linka, at Touchwood Editions for suggesting it. Back in March she and I met and discussed the uncomfortably long list of books that are banging at the side of my head trying to get out. Earlier in the day Don Gorman, with Rocky Mountain Books – who is publishing my upcoming book of essays and photographs Running Toward Stillness – did the same. Both of these publishers work under the umbrella of the Heritage Group. During the course of those two meetings we mapped out my next ten or eleven book projects, which accounted for about a quarter of the books that I’ve got sulking around in the frontal lobe of my cerebellum, vying for attention, insisting on being written IMMEDIATELY.

Ruth suggested that I write the next two books in the Red Rock Canyon series at the same time, and we’d release them together as a sort of concluding salvo in that series sometime next year. This made a lot of sense from a productivity perspective; it turns out it made a lot of sense from a creative perspective as well.

Starting in early April I began working on Black Sun Descending. The process nearly went off the rails early on because I broke one of my cardinal rules and didn’t write a detailed outline. I had a five page summary of all three books I’d used to pitch them to TouchWood back in 2009 but didn’t bother to flesh that out before starting Black Sun. That was a mistake. I was relying on momentum to propel me through sections of the book I wasn’t entirely clear on, but in order to count of such forward motion you actually have to build up a head of steam and that was slow in coming with this novel.

My normal process is to write an outline and just hold on as tight as I can. This means penning about 2,000 words every morning between the hours of five and seven or eight a.m. This slowed to five hundred words during the most difficult sections of the book. I considered, about a third of the way into the book’s 70,000 word first draft, stopping and penning a more detailed outline. I didn’t: I feared I’d lose the one thing I had going for me, which was a routine, and never recover. That was stupid, and the next time I get bogged down like that I hope I’ll remember to take a day or two and just write the damn outline.

I plowed through, slowly, and by the end of May had completed the draft. It sucks of course. Most first drafts do, and that’s alright, because while first drafts are hell, second drafts are pure bliss; they are my favourite part of the writing process. In the first draft I focus on plot and dialog. I’ve found I rarely change either of these in the second draft. As long as I get the story from point A to point B in the first draft I’m happy. I’ve also recently observed that I rarely change dialog in subsequent drafts. I cut a lot, but the general voice of each character usually emerges directly from my head during the first draft and I just write as fast as I can, trying to listen to the story they are telling me.

This is why, during first drafts, that I often seem preoccupied to the outside world. Sometimes while I’m making dinner for my family I’m actually listening to two characters in my novels having a conversation in my head.

I finished the first draft of Black Sun Descending in a hotel room in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan while I was on tour for my most recently published novel The Third Riel Conspiracy.

Where Black Sun Descending was a daily struggle, The Same River Twice was smooth as the tongue of rapid slipping between boulders on a river. (I’m not sure if that metaphor worked.) I wrote the outline while on a plane to New York City for my full time job in conservation, and began writing the novel at 5am the first day I was there. That was late in May. There have been a few other business trips since, and the small matter of the Canmore flood in mid June that pushed me off my writing schedule, but otherwise this second first draft has proceeded quickly. Summer is a pretty easy time to get up early; the ravens are awake and serve as my alarm clock.

Both drafts need a lot of work. Both are short by most anybodies standards, and for me they are uncomfortably so. The Same River Twice is only 57,000 words (I can hear by publisher saying Thank God). They need some meat on their bones; that’s what the second draft is for. That starts tomorrow. Today I’m just writing a few blog posts – sport writing – that have also been banging around in my head for the last few months.

Writing two books in the same series back-to-back has been so rewarding that I’m going to do the same with both of my other mystery series. The continuity of working with the same characters, similar plot lines, and landscapes has been so much easier this way that I may continue this practice in the future.

The next two books in the Durrant Wallace series – one set in Vancouver during the great fire of 1886 and the next set in the Kooteney’s of BC’s interior at Fort Steele – will be next. Then I’ll write two books in the Cole Blackwater series – one set in Vancouver’s downtown east side that addresses human smuggling and sex trafficking and another that puts Cole’s daughter Sarah directly into the plot.

And there’s a half dozen other projects – mysteries, a standalone thriller, essays, and a book of photography – to turn my attention too.

My way of summary, here’s what I learned while penning these two first drafts back to back. None of it is really new, but I hope it’s helpful:

  1. Write an outline and follow it until the story itself makes a compelling case to go in a new direction.
  2. Don’t get distracted by other writing (which is why this is my second blog post in the last three and a half months).
  3. Have a routine. Write at the same time every day. Whatever works for you. Mine is early mornings and lots of tea.
  4. Write in layers: start with plot, ad dialog, character development, setting, etc as you proceed through subsequent drafts.
  5. Don’t worry if the first draft sucks. That’s its job. That’s why we get second and third and forty-fifth drafts, if that’s what it takes.